An Ohio state appeals court has overturned a trial court’s decision to issue a preliminary injunction, which prevented the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) from forcing a student athlete to sit out a year, pursuant to its transfer rule.
In so ruling, the appeals court found that the trial court “interpretation was unreasonable, because it was not supported by the language in the OHSAA bylaws, or by the evidence presented. (The plaintiff) also failed to establish that OHSAA acted arbitrarily in applying the transfer rule. Accordingly, (the plaintiff) failed to prove that he had a substantial likelihood of success on the merits and that an injunction was warranted.”
As a freshman, plaintiff Benjamin Ulliman played football at Alter High School in Kettering, Ohio. During the first semester of tenth grade, Ulliman transferred to Centerville High School, which was the district where his parents resided. He did not play sports at Centerville, due to grade ineligibility. After finishing his sophomore and junior years of high school at Centerville, Ulliman moved to his grandparents’ home in Springfield, and began participating in football practice with the Catholic Central High School team. He did not, however, play football for most of the fall season because he was academically ineligible.
When Ulliman did become eligible in October of 2008, the OHSAA issued a letter ruling to Central, indicating that he was ineligible to play for Central under OHSAA Bylaw 4-7-2, which governs student transfers. OHSAA noted that Ulliman would be ineligible to play interscholastic athletics at Central for one year from the date of his transfer. The letter cited possible exceptions to the policy – a change of custody to another individual living in a new school district, or a bona fide move by one of Ulliman’s parents into a new school district.
Two days after this ruling, Ulliman filed a complaint against OHSAA in Clark County Common Pleas Court. He alleged in the complaint that he was unable to satisfy the custody exception because he turned 18 years of age in July 2008, and a domestic relations court’s jurisdiction over child custody terminates when a minor reaches 18 years of age. Ulliman also alleged that he had met the requirements of the transfer rule, because he had not participated in interscholastic athletics for more than a year after transferring from Alter to Centerville High School.
On the same day the complaint was filed, Ulliman also filed motions for a temporary restraining order and for a preliminary injunction. The trial court held a hearing the next day, and converted the procedure into a preliminary injunction hearing. The court reasoned that temporary restraining orders are generally granted ex parte, but in this case OHSAA had received notice and was present at the hearing. During the hearing, the trial court heard testimony from Deborah Moore, an OHSAA Associate Commissioner, and Matthew Ulliman, who is the plaintiff’s father.
The trial court ultimately enjoined OHSAA from prohibiting Ulliman from competing for Central. The court also enjoined OHSAA from taking adverse action against Ulliman or Central for allowing him to participate.
The appeals court noted that “the trial court concluded that Bylaw 4-7-2 does not apply to Ulliman’s transfer. The court stated that the first sentence of 4-7-2 covers all high school transfers from one school to another. However, the second sentence codifies a much narrower definition of the word ‘transfer,’ and does not cover transfers that occur after an initial transfer from the school attended during the student’s freshman year. Accordingly, when Ulliman moved from Centerville to Central just prior to his senior year, he did not engage in a transfer pursuant to this narrow definition of 4-7-2. The trial court also concluded that OHSAA had acted arbitrarily, because Exception 2 could easily have applied, but for the fact that Ulliman had turned 18 years old in July 2008.”
On appeal, OHSAA argued that the trial court: “erred in exceeding its authority when it interfered with the management of the OHSAA and its member schools by enjoining the OHSAA from prohibiting the plaintiff from participating in interscholastic athletics during plaintiff’s senior year at central when there has been no claim to a constitutionally protected property right or a showing that the officers acted in excess of their powers, or that collusion or fraud is claimed to exist on the part of the officers or a majority of the members.”
After much analysis, the court agreed with OHSAA:
“The court’s interpretation was unreasonable, because it was not supported by the language in the OHSAA bylaws, or by the evidence presented. Ulliman also failed to establish that OHSAA acted arbitrarily in applying the transfer rule. Accordingly, Ulliman failed to prove that he had a substantial likelihood of success on the merits and that an injunction was warranted.”
Ulliman v. OHSAA; Ct. App. Ohio, 2d Dist., Clark Co.; No. 08-CA-99; 7/31/09
Attorneys of record: (for plaintiff-appellee) Paul J. Kavanagh, Springfield, OH. (for defendant-appellant) Steven L. Craig, Canton, OH.